Monday, December 26, 2005

Rule Britannica

Nature magazine recently staged an impromptu track meet between Wikipedia and the reigning monarch of high-school research papers, Encyclopedia Britannica. As it happens, I once took on Her Majesty in the 50-yard hurdles, and I wound up with gravel in my palms and a dislocated knee.

It claims its contributors are "the very best minds in the world," but most of Britannica's writing is done by underemployed youngsters in its home city of Chicago. A few years back, learning that I fit the bill, one of the editors gave me two entries to update. For the next week I crammed on Kiev and George Washington Carver. I cross-checked and nitpicked to the point where something amazing happened: I found an error in Britannica's Carver entry!

It was a small error: Carver wasn't born near Diamond Grove, Mo., but was taken there while still a baby. But still -- an error! A dung stain on the royal robes! I was sure I'd be fêted for my diligence. Smugly, I filed the entries, complete with detailed notes on my discovery. And waited.

Eventually I called the editor -- who hadn't even looked at my work. "We've decided we can't take on any new writers now," she said vaguely. Stunned but docile (underemployed youngster, remember) I tentatively asked about my payment.

I'm sure you see it coming. I didn't get paid. I didn't even have a contract because, frankly, it never occurred to me that the reigning monarch of high-school research papers would try to stiff me a few hundred bucks.

Well. Never underestimate the desperation of an organization on the verge of obsolescence. And double-knot your sneakers.

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